International students deserve better than exploitation

18 August 2017
Head and torso portrait of Christina.

International students make an important contribution to the education sector in New Zealand, so we can - and should - do better on their behalf, writes Christina Stringer.

Media reports over recent months have highlighted the exploitation of international students who come to this country to attend private training establishments (PTEs). Most recently, the latest reports have been on Indian business-owners selling jobs to graduates. 

Unfortunately, this situation is not new. In December 2016, I released the findings from a two-year research project – Worker exploitation in New Zealand: A troubling landscape – which I undertook for the Human Trafficking Research Coalition*.

My research showed that international students, and in particular those attending PTEs, are often vulnerable to exploitation. Many of these students, and particularly those from India, are told prior to arriving in New Zealand that permanent residency is easy to obtain and likewise, jobs easy to find.

But the reality is, many international students find it difficult to obtain employment while studying – and this particularly applies to students studying at PTEs. Some commented that they felt trapped by the lack of job opportunities available; many worked for less than the minimum wage, often just $5 an hour, while some worked 90-hour weeks but were only paid for 45 hours. Others were charged a fee – sometimes as high as $7000 – by prospective employers.

Interviewees suggested there were close links between education agents overseas, PTEs and employers, and even accommodation providers, particularly in the kiwifruit industry.  

While studying in New Zealand, students are permitted to work 20 hours a week while studying and full-time during holidays. Once they complete their study, they are entitled to a post-study work visa. An open visa grants graduates 12 months to find a job related to their studies, while an employer-assisted post-study work visa grants them the right to work for two years. After two years, an application for residency may be filed under the Skilled Migrant Category.

International students who want to stay in New Zealand will actively seek employment which will qualify them for permanent residence. And in turn, some of these become caught up in ‘cash for job’ schemes. 

These schemes operate in different ways. In some instances, the prospective employee pays money to the employer to secure a job. The money is then paid back to the employee through the formal wage system. In effect, the employee pays their own wage including PAYE tax. Alternatively, the employer pays the employee a nominal wage – typically $5 an hour – with the balance of wages paid by the employee. 

Some employers require a lump sum of money paid upfront. Typically, the employee premium ranges from between $20,000 to $40,000, though $60,000 is not unheard of. 

It is an issue, as John Gerritsen identified in an RNZ report last week, that Immigration New Zealand is fully aware of. 

A 2014 MBIE discussion document – Playing by the Rules – refers to the workers paying employment premiums as ‘money-go-round’ schemes. In this document, MBIE highlights a case involving a Chinese woman who had recently graduated and paid $27,000 to secure employment.

As described to me, these ‘cash for residency’ schemes are becoming increasingly normalised.

Increasingly, the media has focused on the exploitation of Indian students. This is not, however, something that occurs just in the Indian community, it happens in other migrant communities as well. It is also not unheard of for New Zealand employers to charge immigrant employees for the privilege of working for them.

Some employers specifically target international students, as they are seen to be desperate to obtain employment. It can be difficult for international students to question what they are told by their employer, and they are often afraid to speak up as many perceive this will put their visa into jeopardy.

The international student industry ranks as New Zealand’s fourth-largest export earner, worth approximately NZ$4 billion per annum. The Government aspires to grow the market to $5 billion by 2025.

But it must be acknowledged that international students make an important contribution to the education sector in New Zealand beyond just dollar terms: We can and should do better on their behalf.


Christina Stringer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Management and International Business, at the University of Auckland's Business School. Her current research is in the related areas of:

  • Forced labour and human trafficking in the fishing industry
  • Exploring migrant worker exploitation in New Zealand - forced labour, human trafficking and labour chains
  • Upgrading in the apparel industry

Used with permission from NewsroomInternational students deserve better than exploitation published on Friday 18 August 2017.

*The Human Trafficking Research Coalition comprises four non-governmental organisations;